I was sitting at my desk arranging the desktop icons into the semblance of a middle finger when the chat window popped up.
“Tony, are you there?”
I finished giving myself the finger and began to type: “Sorry, but this isn’t Tony.” and I was about to press enter when I read:
“I’m drowning in a sea of shit Tony, except I’m the sea. I could really use someone to talk to.”
It occurred to me that Tony might not be available to talk to whoever this person was. That is precisely what had happened to me, the day before, except her name was Michelle, and she’d gotten sick of how often I needed her help.
Besides there appeared to be no one else at any of their desks, anywhere on this floor.
I wrote: “Okay. What’s wrong?”
They said: “IT’S fucking stupid. I’m being stupid.”
“Whatever IT is, If IT bothers you, then it bothers you. And that’s okay.”
They didn’t type anything for awhile.
Then they wrote: “On the subway someone’s phone went off. The ringtone was Don’t Stop Believing by journey and I wanted to cry because of it, but I didn’t want anyone to see so I picked up this newspaper and there was this stupid picture of a soldier upside down and he looked like an idiot so I started laughing but I was crying at the same time and then I realized I was holding the newspaper upside down and that everyone would know why I’d done it.”
Typed “lol” then deleted it.
They wrote “See, it’s fucking stupid.”
I typed “Why did the song make you cry?”
They wrote it all out. How their face had been scratched by the windshield of their car whilst they listened to what used to be their favorite song. How they had lost who they were and that reminded me qof how I’d lost Danielle, and how simple things that shouldn’t be, did. Like waking up. And breakfast,
Except Danielle was definitely still alive and waiting for me at home with the next episode of Game Of Thrones.
Later they wrote “Thank you I fucking needed that” so I thought it was time to type: “My name isn’t actually Tony you know. Though I am in tech support…” which is when I woke up from the dream, into an empty bed, on top of a duvet too large for one person because Danielle was still dead and I’d forgotten again.
It took me sometime to get dressed and go to my real desk, out in the real world. It was somewhere around noon when I realized that I’d left my latest prescription at home. My supervisor let me go, told me to stay home, and I knew he meant well but why couldn’t he understand that I would come back the moment I took my pills and that the last thing I needed was to be at home. That auditing the accounts of a popcorn company was bliss in comparison.
The pills didn’t seem to do anything except make day time TV somewhat more bearable. The romance, between an ancient concubine and some kind of half-man, half-bird creature was particularly enthralling, especially since I do not speak cantonese and so made up the words in my head. My stomach growled so I put some instant dimsum in the microwave and pressed some buttons. At some distance from the couch the microwave started beeping. I figured that now that it was cooked, that it would keep, for several hours if necessary. Later the washing machine started making noises. I remained on the sofa, listening with half-shut eyes to the nonsensical patter of another Chinese soap.
Of course my phone had to go off right next to my head. An unknown number. I prepared to be polite. If it was all I going to do today, I was going to be polite to his poor, underpaid telemarketer.
“Hello.” I said, in my polite voice.
She said: “Hi there! I’m calling from tech support! Why so glum chum?”
“What’s on you mind man! I heard you’re kind of down.”
“From who? Who is this?”
“Well, I got this memo, said you’re kind of down. Got it from the sysadmin. He assigned me to you I think. I’m not sure. But who cares, whatever, you sound like ass, you really do and for what it’s worth you shouldn’t bottle it all up. Let’s see here…Danielle…lovely name that. Come on man, tell me about her. I’m listening. You can tell me whatever you like.
I tried a few Well’s, some But’s and it’s just’s- she waited for me to finish one of my sentences but I failed to. I only breathed slower, and harder, till I was gasping.
She said “Danielle would want you to treat yourself well, I mean, that’s love right?”
“That’s…what the fuck…” And it just spilled out of me. In a babbling mess. I confessed about how I’d finally found someone that made me feel everything I’d ever dreamed of, right when I’d given up all hope, right when I was at my most overweight and tired, and then out of nowhere, just like that she’s gone and all the pills in the goddamn world weren’t enough. I told her how I hadn’t really been happy to begin with. How Danielle just accepted me and that was the definition of love.
The tech support lady said: “Self-acceptance counts too.”
And after that I poured the rest out. And after that I tried to thank her. “That was so much better than these pink pills I take.”
It turns out we took the same pills.
She had been swearing a lot. I asked: “Have you…ever been in a car accident?”
She said Yes.
“And do you have a friend, a good friend named Tony?”
She said What the fuck.
The line began to crackle. I remembered then, being transferred to tech support, the empty office, and a middle finger made out of desktop icons and: “LOOK, IF YOU’RE AT THE OFFICE TONIGHT, MEET ME AT THE PHOTOCOPY MACHINE!”
She managed to ask: “The pink one?”
“YES THE BRIGHT PINK ONE!!!!!” and the line went dead and I woke up opposite the TV and I made a mental, then a written note to bring all this up with my psychiatrist. Then I did my washing, ate the dimsum, and went back to work.
I was so excited that getting to sleep took ages.
It felt like I was about to go somewhere new. Meet someone new. It felt like my first date with Danielle and the debate I had about what flowers to buy. So I still thought I was awake even when I found myself at the bottom of a lift shaft, with only a ladder and the distant sounds whirring office machinery. I climbed and counted the floors, perpetually afraid I had lost track, that I was going to miss mine. It made me want to start all over again but my arms were tired and what if I wouldn’t be able to go back up?
The silhouette of a head peeked out, far above me. “About time! I couldn’t find a single freakin’ photocopy machine anywhere. Its like the end of the world up in here.”
At that point it became easier to climb, until I stood on the other side of the shaft from her, the gap in between too large to jump. “Jump it!” she said.
“I’ll fall.” I replied.
She extended her hands and it occurred to me that if I ran really, really fast, then maybe I’d outrun gravity. So I did, and I was only a foot away from her when gravity caught up to grab me by my ankles, “OH HELL NO!” She yelled, then her hands clasping mine, pulling me up till we stood, face to scarred face. She kissed me and I didn’t ask why, or feel guilty at all despite the fact that she looked nothing like Danielle.
“I checked out the company directory, none of it makes any fucking sense, but I’ll tell you what- the sysadmin’s office is on the top floor. Come on, we’ll take the stairs.”
So we ran hand in hand up an interminable fire escape. Eventually we emerged into a white marbled lobby. At the end of it, large and imposing, were a set of double doors. One black, the other white, with a drop of the other color in each. Holding hands we shouldered both open together.
Inside the sysadmin dropped the dimsum he’d been eating. Then he tripped over a bundle of wires covered with what looked like unwashed clothes. He stuttered: “Who the…what the…you guys aren’t supposed to BE here! At the same time! Oh jeez, you’re even holdin’ hands.”
I gently disconnected from her.
The sysadmin sighed and circled us, humming and hawwing to himself. I said: “Excuse me, we would very much like to know how…”
“Shhhh.” He gently pressed one finger to his lips. “Shhhhhhhitttttt I see it now. Wow. You guys. The pills you both take. They messed with the system! Fucking PEOPLE!” His hands flew up, beseeching a red neon sign above him, composed of Chinese characters I did not understand. “Always messing around with the mind, like idiot children. Damn pills got side effects. Ought to put that on the label.”
“Look sir, is she real?”
She turned on me: “SAY WHAT? Fuck you, are YOU real?”
“YOU’RE BOTH FRICKIN REAL!” he said. “Look. Here’s the thing. There has been a teensy little screw up. You aren’t ever suppsoed to be together in the same place and time. The same place-time. That isn’t how it works,”
“How what works?” One of us said.
“The…buddy program. For broken people- not unlike yourselves. What happens is when one person is really low, like, down in the sewers low, then another person, quite like them, but- and this is crucial- not feeling the same way at that exact moment in time, contacts you, and you have a bit of a talk, to alleviate the symptoms of existence. Now you are both, if I may say so, HIGHLY QUALIFIED buddys in your own right. Seriously top notch traumas you’ve both sustained. But the algorithm’s screwed up, there shouldn’t be a recurring relationship. Not like this. There shouldn’t be anything tying you to together. Except for the goddamn pills your quack of a psychiatrist gave both of you. Same pills, same connection, and now you’re freakin HOLDING HANDS!”
He sighed again, said: “There is only one thing left to do now. Gotta reset the system.”
“Yeah, turn it on and off. Works most of the time.”
“And then what, we just…”
“Wake up, and all of this is forgotten, and later on you help someone different instead.”
I asked him: “But wait, you mean, we go to the same doctor? We could see each other…outside of…work?”
She asked him: “Hey dickhead, what if we don’t want to forget, did you ever consider that?”
The sysadmin paused, hands hovering over the console he had been typing at. “Sorry. Really am. But if I don’t do this you guys might end up perfectly happy, and then so much for balancing out the others. And you’ll know all about the backoffice. And you’ll start some frickin cult and invariably in a century or two it’ll all get fucked.”
I held her hand again. “What does it mean?” I asked.
I was pointing at the neon sign, which had changed from Chinese to latin. “Lucem ex tenebras; from darkness, light.” The sysadmin massaged the top of his forehead. “Even if I reset the system it won’t be over for you guys. You’re on your way up. The darkness, without it you wouldn’t understand each other. You wouldn’t care. Not as hard. Not as much. And for what it’s worth there are a lot of you guys out there, trust me.” He gestured to the stack of servers: “You’ll find someone else. Or you won’t. I don’t know. It’ll be like a dream- you’ll forget the details but you’ll remember the point.” He squatted and reached into a space between two servers.
She turned to me, her smile melding with the scar that traveled from her jaw to her forehead. “I’ll remember you.” She said.
And then he flipped the switch.
I woke up late on top of a duvet too large for one person. I was pretty sure I’d dreamt of Danielle. What little I had slipped out of my grasp, leaving only a few word that made no sense.
So I googled Lucem Ex Tenebras and went back to work.